Ed Miliband could call a snap election following 2015 if he wins. Photo: Getty
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Why Ed Miliband should gamble on a snap election after 2015

After 2015, Ed Miliband should evoke the spirit of Harold Wilson and gamble on a snap election – not dither and drown like Gordon Brown.

Next year’s election has been touted as the most significant for a generation. But then they always are.

But after a five-year wait for this general election, we may be asked to go to the polls again even sooner than we think. For while there is legislation saying the next government will last five years, like the current administration, the realities of politics – and a quick bit of opportunism – may see an election called within two years of the 2015 vote. Consider this scenario: Ed Miliband wakes up on 8 May next year and discovers he is prime minister. Not an unlikely event considering the polls. Labour has been sitting ahead of the Tories since early 2012, granted with the odd blip here and there. But the party has been in the lead for the past two and a half years. Current predictions, thanks to the electoral system and constituency boundaries, give Labour a majority of just more than 30.

But with the economy expected to pick up, and the Kinnock Factor of Miliband, it would be surprising if the Tories did not cut into the lead in the polls in the run-up to election day. There is precedence here: In 1964, Harold Wilson went into the election with polls giving him a majority of anywhere from 12 to 28. He formed a government with a majority of just five. Likewise in 1992, the country went to the polls with Neil Kinnock’s Labour party on course to get a slim majority, but instead John Major won more votes than any other prime minister in British history. The Tories know how to cast doubts on untested Labour leaders.

So Miliband wakes up the day after the election with a smaller than expected majority, but still large enough so that he can form a government. But what can he do? Splashing the cash is out – a Labour victory does not mean the country is suddenly back in the black and the last thing Ed Balls will want to be accused of is being reckless with a growing economy. It will be the symbolic measures that will dominate Miliband’s first year in office – axing the bedroom tax, halting NHS reorganisations, tinkering with the more unpopular aspects of Michael Gove’s school reforms. But once those headline-grabbing moves are out of the way, Miliband will find himself beholden to the rabble-rousers in the Labour party to keep the government going.

In the same way David Cameron must be grateful he is in a coalition with the Lib Dems and not his rightwing backbenchers, Miliband will not be wanting to rely on support from the likes of Jeremy Corbyn, Dennis Skinner and other members of the "tax and spend" wing of the party to prop up the Government. 

He will want a larger majority – as all prime ministers do – and as soon as possible. A snap election will suddenly appear very intoxicating. Harold Wilson saw his majority increase from four to 96 after calling a general election in 1966, fewer than two years after the previous vote. Wilson used the same trick again in 1974, managing to move his government from a minority to a slim majority by calling an October general election just eight months after the February vote. 

After two years in government, Miliband will have grown into the role of prime minister. The Labour leader has his critics, but it is remarkable what a bit of power can do for someone’s image. Remember how Cameron and George Osborne were perceived before taking office? How about William Hague? – derided as a joke when Leader of the Opposition but now firmly in the statesman category.

The economy should still be growing. Provided Balls doesn’t balls it up, and sticks broadly to the coalition's spending plans – which he has already alluded to – Labour could reap the benefits of Osborne’s tough line.

If Labour is riding high in the polls, and the feeling is Miliband is about to push the general election button, panicked Tories and Lib Dems will no doubt start to very loudly talk up the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. But while that Act provided a much-needed and effective anchor on the Con-Lib coalition during its stormier times, there is no reason to suggest Miliband will use it to weigh down the Labour ship. Legally speaking, no parliament can bind another, so it could just be repealed – very easily. Would the Leader of the Opposition (Osborne? Theresa May? Boris?) stand up in parliament and argue against asking the public to vote on a new government? 

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is a complete red herring in all of this. Miliband should go to the polls and increase his majority, like Wilson did in 1966 and 1974. If not, he could end up like Major at the end of his tenure, dragging the government on in the hope something will happen to either destroy the opposition or boost his flagging ratings. Whatever he decides, he must avoid the mistake of the last Labour prime minister, who lost the election-that-never-was in Autumn 2007 simply by not calling one. Brown got the reputation as a ditherer, which haunted him until he left office. As Tony Blair once said, Labour is best when it is boldest. Miliband will do well to emulate the boldness of Wilson, not the dithering of Brown.

Owen Bennett tweets @owenjbennett

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism